John Waters' 'Hairspray' keeps its hold on us

Film evolves again, into concert form, with the BSO handling the music

  • John Waters holds the slate from the final take during the filming of "Hairspray."
John Waters holds the slate from the final take during the filming… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
January 22, 2013|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

"Hairspray" is the product that just keeps giving.

In 1988, John Waters added indelibly to his in-a-class-by-itself filmography with this tale of youth, love, race relations, and irrepressible dancing in early-1960s Baltimore. Fourteen years later, that movie became the basis for a Broadway musical, which, in turn, was adapted into a Hollywood musical in 2007.

Now comes another version, "Hairspray: In Concert," which will be presented this week by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"It never dies," Waters said of his creation. "You can't stick a stake in it."

Giving the concert version added splash is the presence onstage of the minimally mustachioed, maximally provocative Waters himself. He serves as narrator, "a completely new field for me," he said. "But you can never have too many careers."

Joining Waters and the BSO onstage is a well-credentialed cast that includes two artists reprising roles they had in "Hairspray" on Broadway — Marissa Perry as zaftig teen Tracy Turnblad; "MADtv" veteran Paul Vogt as Tracy's zaftig-er mother Edna (the drag role created in the movie by Baltimore icon Divine).

Micky Dolenz, of The Monkees fame, plays Edna's husband Wilbur, a role he first performed in a London production a couple years ago. Tony Award-winner Beth Leavel is Velma von Tussle, the scheming, bigoted producer of "The Corny Collins Show," a TV dance show that the intrepid Tracy is determined to integrate.

The role of the high school principal, who thinks Tracy and her mile-high beehive spell trouble, is taken by Waters. "I guess that's called against-type," he said.

"Hairspray: In Concert" is a co-production with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which gave the premiere earlier this month. Rather than a stand-and-sing approach, the presentation includes costuming and choreography (students from the Baltimore School for the Arts will augment the ensemble here).

The idea for the venture began with Jack Everly, principal pops conductor of the BSO and Indianapolis Symphony.

"The original story that John created for the movie 'Hairspray' has a marvelous tone," Everly said. "He took what is essentially a very difficult time in American history and treated it in a very uplifting and entertaining way. The Broadway musical added a wonderfully tuneful score and very clever lyrics to that story. The challenge of [the concert version] is to keep things very clear after editing the script."

The solution was to ask the originator to prepare a connective thread for the concert experience.

"John was amusingly skeptical when I approached him," Everly said. "But I gave him carte blanche to write the narration, which is, as you would expect, wonderfully witty."

That narration is essential, since a lot of material from the musical has been jettisoned. A case in point is a scene where Edna comforts Tracy, who is smitten with Link, the heartthrob from the Collins show. Vogt said that most of the dialogue has been cut from this "lovely mother-and-daughter moment."

"Instead, there's just an embrace," the actor said. "It gets a laugh at first, because I'm so tall in heels, and Tracy's face gets pressed into my boobs, which are huge. I don't have a five-minute scene after that now. I have a line: 'I am so proud of you.' But it's still powerful. So you definitely get a sense of the show in this version."

Vogt said he often stayed just offstage during performances in Indianapolis to hear the narration by Waters.

"It's really fascinating and funny," Vogt said. "He gives you the background and insight into why and how he created 'Hairspray.' Our dressing rooms were across from each other, so I got to spend more time talking to John, who likes to chat. I can't get enough of him. I love hearing about him and Divine in high school."

Audiences here will likely know more of the "Hairspray" back story than folks in Indianapolis did ("They ate up what John gave them about the characters and Baltimore," Everly said). But there's nothing like getting Waters' own take on the times, people and milieu that were a part of the work's genesis.

With "Hairspray," Waters conjured up a vivid slice of Baltimore's past that wasn't all that fictionalized for the movie and its subsequent manifestations. He has strong memories of mothers and daughters in some parts of town — "Not the Ruxton women," he said — going to the same beauty salons to get the same kind of beehive, just as Tracy and Edna do.

"Huge hair was thought of as beautiful. Not in Catholic schools — you had to press it down flat. But it bounced back," Waters said.

He still keeps in touch with dancers who became local celebrities by appearing regularly on "The Buddy Dean Show," the WJZ program that inspired "The Corny Collins Show" in "Hairspray." The policy was whites-only on the dance floor, except for a periodic day reserved solely for African-Americans. That policy never changed before the program was canceled in 1964.

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